Citroën Racing will get its season – and efforts to regain its World Rally Championship crown from Volkswagen - underway at this weekend's Rallye Monte-Carlo with the new pairing of Kris Meeke and Mads Østberg.
For the first time since it began competing in the WRC, Citroën Racing will be fielding a completely changed line-up over the previous season, but is confident that its decision can pay dividends as it attempts to prevent Sebastien Ogier embarking on the sort of championship run it enjoyed with predecessor Sebastien Loeb.
Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena once again proved unbeatable on the 2013 Monte, dominating the event after managing to negotiate the tricky road conditions created by the weather to produce the perfect start to the season. With only sporadic outings on their schedule, however, Ogier was presented with very little true opposition for much of the year, leaving Citroen licking its wounds.
The marque enjoys a happy history with the season-opener, though, with nine victories stretching between the ID19 in 1959 to Loeb's 2013 success in the DS3 WRC. Both Meeke and Østberg will pilot the DS3 this weekend, looking to make it a tenth win on the event and a 94th overall in the WRC.
A winter rally held in the hills between the Alps and the Mediterranean, the Rallye Monte-Carlo is reputed for its highly varied, testing road conditions. The tarmac can be dry or wet, covered in ice or snow: the road surface changes over time, varies in different parts of the stages and as more cars come through. To prepare for this testing rally, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team organised several test sessions in the south east of France, close to the route of the rally.
“Our test campaign was split into two stages,” chief operations engineer Didier Clément explained, “Before Christmas, both crews spent two days in the Alpes-Maritimes department. They were able to get used to driving the Citroën DS3 WRC on roads without any tricky sections. Then, a few days ahead of the rally, we made things more difficult for them. They had to drive with studded tyres on dry roads and slick tyres on the snow, and we also tested the intermediate configurations, with combined tyre set-ups. Kris and Mads had to get to grips with these kinds of situations, which can easily arise at some point or another in the rally.”
By trying to cover as many different situations as possible in testing, the team was therefore able to boost its already very extensive knowledge base.
“During the rally, it'll be a question of making the best – or the least bad – tyre choice,” Clement continued, “You have to anticipate the conditions, comparing the information provided by the gravel crews with data from our weather experts and from Météo France. Using all this information, as well as our experience and feedback from testing, we recommend a tyre choice to the crews. However, it is always the driver who has the final say, because he must feel confident in the car to be able to push.”
Meeke has plenty of experience of competing on the Monte, having raced there five times already.
“My favourite memory goes back to 2005,” he recalled, “It was my first rally in a Citroën, as I was competing in the Junior WRC in a C2 Super 1600. The conditions were difficult, as ever, with snow and ice, but I remember that year in particular, as I took the JWRC category win!”
From experience, the Briton knows that the rally can be decided by minor details.